At Bush/Karzai press conference, White House press corps again failed to challenge Bush's misleading and nonsensical answers

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

At a White House press conference, President Bush described Americans who think the Iraq war has made the country less safe as "naïve" and rebutted claims that the conflict has contributed to the growing terrorist threat by repeating his illogical argument that "[w]e weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th." But reporters failed to challenge his non-responsive remarks, and several print outlets uncritically reported them shortly thereafter.

In his answers during a September 26 joint press conference with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, President Bush described Americans who think the Iraq war has made the country less safe as "naïve" and rebutted claims that the conflict has contributed to the growing terrorist threat by repeating his illogical argument that "[w]e weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th." But not only did the White House press corps once again fail to challenge Bush's non-responsive remarks during the press conference, several print outlets -- including the Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Washington Post -- uncritically reported them shortly thereafter.

The format of the September 26 press conference allowed for two questions from the U.S. press and two questions from the international and Afghan press accompanying Karzai on his visit. The first question came from Associated Press staff writer Jennifer Loven, who brought up the recently leaked conclusion of an April National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) (declassified after the press conference) that the Iraq war has led to an increase in global terrorism. Loven asked Bush, "Even after hearing that one of the major conclusions of the NIE in April was that the Iraq war has fueled terror growth around the world, why have you continued to say that the Iraq war has made this country safer?" Bush responded by describing those who think the Iraq war "makes us less safe" as "naïve." He then attempted to rebut the very idea that the Iraq war could have aided terrorist recruitment worldwide:

BUSH: Some people have guessed what's in the report and have concluded that going into Iraq was a mistake. I strongly disagree. I think it's naïve. I think it's a mistake for people to believe that going on the offense against people that want to do harm to the American people makes us less safe.

[...]

BUSH: You know, to suggest that if we weren't in Iraq, we would see a rosier scenario with fewer extremists joining the radical movement requires us to ignore 20 years of experience. We weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th. We weren't in Iraq, and thousands of fighters were trained in terror camps inside your country, Mr. President. We weren't in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. We weren't in Iraq when they bombed the [USS] Cole. We weren't in Iraq when they blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. My judgment is, if we weren't in Iraq, they'd find some other excuse, because they have ambitions. They kill in order to achieve their objectives.

Bush also questioned the political motivations behind the leak of the NIE conclusion, which he claimed was disclosed in order to "create confusion in the minds of the American people":

BUSH: [H]ere we are, coming down the stretch in an election campaign, and it's on the front page of your newspapers. Isn't that interesting? Somebody has taken it upon themselves to leak classified information for political purposes.

[...]

BUSH: But once again, there's a leak out of our government, coming right down the stretch in this campaign. To create confusion in the minds of the American people, in my judgment, is why they leaked it.

Bush's answer could have provoked several follow-up questions:

  • You say that it is naïve to believe that the Iraq war has made us less safe. Are you saying that the U.S. intelligence experts who authored the report are naïve? Yesterday, on ABC's World News Tonight, your own Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend even acknowledged that the NIE concluded that "there has been a greater spread of extremism across the world, making it more likely that we will see attacks against U.S. interests around the world over time." Was she being naïve as well?
  • In dismissing concerns about the Iraq war's effect on terrorist recruitment, you noted that we were not in Iraq when Al Qaeda carried out the 9-11 attacks. But who is arguing that terrorists didn't exist prior to September 11, 2001? Do you not think it possible that the terrorist threat could have grown since then?
  • You say that if we weren't in Iraq, the terrorists would find "some other excuse" to get people to join their ranks. But the NIE reportedly concluded not only that Iraq is being used for propaganda purposes, but also that it is being effectively used to swell the ranks of the terrorists. Was it a mistake to give the terrorists an "excuse" that they have effectively used to make the world more dangerous?
  • You say the NIE conclusion was leaked to "create confusion" about Iraq among the American people. Are you saying that making public the intelligence community's conclusion that the Iraq war is swelling the ranks of terrorists is "confus[ing]" the American people? If so, why?

Loven did manage to ask a follow-up question regarding whether Bush's decision to declassify the NIE's key judgments was "a political act." But this question did not address the clear flaws in Bush's answer. The second U.S. reporter to question him also failed to follow up on Bush's answer. Instead, she asked that he respond to former President Bill Clinton's recent assertion that the Bush administration did not hold meetings on the Al Qaeda threat in the eight months prior to 9-11. Bush quickly dismissed the question, saying, "I'm not going to comment on, you know, other comments."

While the abbreviated format did not give other White House correspondents an opportunity to challenge Bush on his answers, they could have raised such questions in their reports immediately following the press conference. But to the contrary, the initial print articles uncritically reported the dubious remarks highlighted above. For instance, Associated Press diplomatic writer Barry Schweid led his September 26 article with Bush's comment that those who believe the Iraq war has worsened terrorism are "naïve":

President Bush on Tuesday said it is naive and a mistake to think that the war with Iraq has worsened terrorism, disputing a national intelligence assessment by his own administration. He said he was declassifying part of the report.

"Some people have guessed what's in the report and concluded that going into Iraq was a mistake. I strongly disagree," Bush said.

An article by International Herald Tribune reporter Brian Knowlton on the press conference posted on the New York Times website similarly quoted this statement without challenge:

Mr. Bush said that people were drawing the wrong conclusion from the leaked news reports.

"Some people have guessed what's in the report and concluded that going into Iraq was a mistake," the president said. "I strongly disagree."

"I think it's naïve. I think it's a mistake for people to believe that going on the offense against people that want to do harm against the American people makes us less safe."

Meanwhile, the September 26 Washington Post article on the press conference by staff writer Bill Brubaker uncritically reported Bush's statement that "[w]e weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th," as well as his claim that the leak of the NIE was intended to confuse the public:

Bush charged at the news conference that political opponents leaked select parts of the National Intelligence Estimate to media organizations last weekend "to create confusion in the minds of the American people" in the weeks before November's mid-term elections.

"Somebody has taken it upon themselves to leak classified information for political purposes," Bush said. "I think it's a bad habit for our government to declassify every time there is a leak."

[...]

With Karzai looking on, Bush said the war in Iraq has not increased the threat of terrorism.

"You know, to suggest that if we weren't in Iraq we would see a rosier scenario, with fewer extremists joining the radical movement, requires us to ignore 20 years of experience," Bush said. "We weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th. We weren't in Iraq and thousands of fighters were trained in terror camps inside your country, Mr. President. We weren't in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993."

Later, Bush added: "My judgment is: The only way to protect this country is to stay on the offense. It is preposterous to think, if we were to withdaw, and hope for the best, things would turn out fine, against this enemy."

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